In summer 2019, Burmese journalist and human rights defender Swe Win had to flee Myanmar with his family, fearing for their safety after surviving an assassination attempt coordinated by an army chief. The attack came after Myanmar Now, the Yangon-based, independent news outlet that Swe Win leads, had published investigative reports on the business interests of Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar's armed forces commander-in-chief.
The COVID-19 pandemic derailed Swe Win’s plans to return to the country ahead of the national elections the following year. Then, on February 1, 2021, everything changed when the military seized power in a coup, ousting the democratically-elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi. “The coup has put an abrupt end to Myanmar people’s hopes for liberty and democracy,” said Swe Win, the recipient of APARC’s 2021 Shorenstein Journalism Award, at the award ceremony. “Every form of free speech is brutally suppressed. There is no space left for any freedom.”
One victim of the coup has been Myanmar’s independent press. Like other news organizations and publications, Myanmar Now saw its newsroom raided, its operating license revoked, and its website blocked, and most of its staff were forced to flee to territories alongside the country's border areas. Swe Win leads the news outlet from exile while his team, in hiding, courageously continues to report on what is happening in the country.
Speaking at the Shorenstein award’s twentieth annual discussion, which was held virtually on October 12, 2021, Swe Win described Myanmar’s post-coup assault on the free press. “Newsgathering on the ground, in Yangon and other parts of the country, is very dangerous,” he said. Reporters inside the country are subject to an unprecedented level of surveillance, can no longer identify themselves as working with Myanmar Now or other news organizations, and risk their lives with every interview they conduct.
Any criticism of the military junta, even a mere suggestion of sympathy with the resistance movement, is easily interpreted as indicating dissidence and leads to immediate arrests. “The future of the media in Myanmar is bleak,” Swe Win said. “Under the military junta, there are no options left for professional reporters to work independently.”
The award event also included a discussion with Eileen Donahoe, the executive director of the Global Digital Policy Incubator (GDPI) at Stanford’s Cyber Policy Center, and Scot Marciel, a career diplomat, former U.S. ambassador to Myanmar, and currently a visiting practitioner fellow on Southeast Asia at APARC. Southeast Asia Program Director Donald K. Emmerson chaired the discussion.
Unflinching Pursuit of Truth
The Shorenstein Journalism Award recognizes accomplished journalists who have significantly contributed to a greater understanding of the complexities of Asia. It alternates between recipients affiliated mostly with American news media and those primarily affiliated with Asian news media, who often also work on the frontline of the battle to defend press freedom in their home countries. The 2019 awardee in that category is Maria Ressa, winner of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
“The Shorenstein Award has put a spotlight on courageous journalists around the world for a long time, and our honoree this year richly deserves its recognition,” noted Raju Narisetti, director of global publishing at McKinsey & Company and a member of the selection committee for the Shorenstein Journalism Award, as he introduced Swe Win. “From a very young age, he set off on a path to speaking truth to power — something that he has passionately done at a heavy price.”
Swe Win launched his journalism career after being held for seven years as a political prisoner on national security-related charges for joining the democracy movement as a college student. Throughout his career, Swe Win has shined a light on human rights cases that involve physical injury, death, unlawful detention, and miscarriage of justice in Myanmar. Under his leadership, Myanmar Now has gained recognition for its unflinching reports of crimes against the Rohingya and spotlights on the lives of Myanmar’s impoverished communities, for criticizing ultranationalist Buddhist monks, and for its bold coverage of Aung San Suu Kyi’s administration and the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw.
On multiple occasions, Swe Win had to defend himself against physical attacks and frivolous litigation intended to derail the reporting of Myanmar Now. “To us, journalism is like science, its power is in the truth – that is what’s driving us […] We do not mix activism with journalistic work, but rather let the facts tell the story,” he replied when asked how he balances the roles of a journalist and a human rights defender.
The Rise of Digital Authoritarianism
Donahoe, who served in the Obama administration as the first U.S. ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva during the period when Myanmar seemed as if it was transitioning to a functioning democracy, described the sense of hope and optimism at that time and how disheartening it is “to recognize how much we can go backward in just a decade of time.”
In her current role, Donahoe leads GDPI’s efforts to advance policies that reinforce human rights and democratic values in a digitized society. She emphasized the need to recognize both the risks of digital disinformation and techno-authoritarianism, on the one hand, and the importance of digital technologies for human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society actors, who depend on them to do their work. “The problem is that the same tools that serve very beneficial purposes in society are now being weaponized by maligned actors. Unfortunately, this is a geopolitical trend, what I would call digital authoritarianism.”
The Myanmar Coup: Regional and International Implications
The coverage of the Myanmar coup and its aftermath has rightly focused on the suffering and the lost freedoms of Myanmar’s people, but, more broadly, the crisis profoundly impacts other countries in the region as well as the United States.
Within Southeast Asia, explained Ambassador Marciel, the coup has become a complex challenge for the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), which has been unable to figure out how to address the crisis. By creating massive regional instability, the coup has also put the two giants on Myanmar’s borders — India and China — in a situation they dislike. “The coup has failed in the sense that the Myanmar military has not been able to control and to govern the country,” Marciel said.
As for the United and its engagement with Southeast Asia, the coup and Myanmar’s current descent further into violence are a major setback. Marciel highlighted the role the United States can play in the upcoming ASEAN summit to advance solutions to the crisis. Donahoe also emphasized the opportunity to put Myanmar at the top of the agenda of the Biden administration’s upcoming Summit for Democracy, whose three pillars are combating authoritarianism, combating kleptocracy, and protecting human rights. “These are highly relevant to the case of Myanmar, and digital technology runs through all three,” said Donahoe.
At the close of the discussion, both Donahoe and Marciel underscored the need for and opportunity in funding and training independent media groups in Myanmar, like Myanmar Now.
Despite the enormous difficulties and risks ahead, Swe Win emphasized that he and his colleagues believe the current crisis is an opportunity for greater and better changes in Myanmar. He ended the conversation on an optimistic note: “You may be depressed about what is happening in our nation and in other places, but the people of Myanmar are not depressed. As long as we are with the truth, we are always winning.”